On Sept. 10, 2001, I flew back to Washington from Frankfurt, Germany, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. We discussed a host of domestic and foreign policy issues before landing at Washington Dulles International Airport on that bright, crisp day. Neither of us had any idea how our worlds, and the worlds of every American — indeed, of everyone “on the planet,” as Newt often says — would be completely upended within the next 24 hours.
Even the expectations that we all assumed within hours of the attack on that dark day have changed. At the time, the question was not whether another attack on our country would occur, but when. Few would have predicted that we would look back exactly 11 years later to find that Sept. 11 was a one-time catastrophic event. It took a lot of sacrifice and hard work, but we’ve gotten much closer to “normal” life than many thought possible.
That is in large measure because of the steps we have taken together as a nation to ensure our safety. We’ve become more alert and coordinated in facing the daily and ongoing threat of terrorism. We know that security requires constant vigilance — not only from our armed forces, which have done an exemplary job hunting down terrorists worldwide, but from the combined efforts of federal, state and local governments striving to keep us all safe.
The 9/11 commission made 41 important recommendations in 2004 on ways to improve homeland security. Nearly all were implemented. But one major recommendation goes unheeded: “Congressional oversight for intelligence — and counterterrorism — is now dysfunctional. Congress should create a single principal point of oversight and review for homeland security.”
Eight years later, the oversight problem has only gotten worse.
The Department of Homeland Security reports to 108 committees and subcommittees. That is up from 86 in 2003. The Department of Defense, by contrast, reports to 36 committees and subcommittees, yet its budget is 10 times higher. Worse, many of these 108 committees, which oversee such things as small businesses, financial services and aging, hardly seem to have a sensible role to play where homeland security is concerned.
It might be easy to shrug off this oversight problem. It’s the usual Washington bureaucracy — something that hardly affects the rest of us, right? Wrong. The slowdowns and turf battles that go hand in hand with excessive oversight hamper the Homeland Security Department’s efforts to better protect the nation.
Take the recently proposed legislation to revise America’s approach to biological threats. It had to go through eight committees in the House of Representatives alone. Such needless delay can be costly, and not just in terms of money.
Nor is this is a new problem. Consider what happened in 2006 when three Senate committees — Commerce, Finance and Homeland Security — tried to handle a port security bill. “We had almost identical bills for port security coming out of each committee,” one former chief counsel told the Center for Public Integrity. “For 30 straight days, we were locked up in a room from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. arguing about jurisdiction.”
It also can be about bragging rights. “Any committee that has any part of jurisdiction is going to try to assert it, in order to get a shot on the news back home,” said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Congress is like kids in school: You have to have rules.”
A complete overhaul is necessary. One obvious solution is to follow the way that Congress reformed oversight of the Department of Defense, which has a similar mission, and (as noted above) a much larger budget. Oversight could be pared down to exactly six committees — three in the Senate and three in the House.
Surely, the Department of Homeland Security has enough of a challenge preventing the next terrorist attack. Why force it to waste time and money surviving a gauntlet of pointless and redundant oversight? Now that we have marked the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, let’s finally take the steps necessary to fix this problem.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).